A Rave New Worldby Simon Davis / Images by Andrew Kirkby / 13.05.2013
It’s been a week since I got back from my first trip to AfrikaBurn and it’s taken that long to process why I found it so extraordinary.On the surface, there is an astounding amount of effort and creativity: an entire town laid out for 7,000+ people, including dozens of artworks, some over 40 feet high, burning mechanical dinosaurs, laser shows and a non-stop cacophony of parties and performances with enormous sound systems, all constructed in an inaccessible desert with materials and equipment from hundreds of miles away, then taken down to leave no trace.
However, the scale of the effort, while mind-blowing, doesn’t capture the heart of AfrikaBurn at all. For the whole week, I didn’t see a single fight or hear a single argument. It was like walking into a world made up of nicer human beings. Everyone was not only friendly, but wonderfully generous with whatever they had. One camp laid out an astro-turf lawn and built a swimming pool (with rain tanks of water carted hundreds of miles to fill it up). Another offered hot showers until their water ran out. A camp near us, built a gin palace, stocked with 30 types of gin and an endless supply of tonic, ice and lime. 24/7. The Stasie Kafee, served white wine in the day and red wine and boerewors rolls at night. Other camps made pancakes. A professional concert pianist under a wicker pagoda played sundown classical concerts. A bakkie converted into a pirate ship complete with masts, sails and hammocks cruised lazily around all day draped with 20-30 children and laughing adults. For those of you that have never been to AfrikaBurn, all this was provided with no money changing hands and no barter. All the ‘attractions’ are gifts.
If I had to use one word to describe what makes AfrikaBurn different to say Glastonbury or other huge events, that word would be ‘participation’.
Afrikaburn has organisers, but they are very much in the background. What you see and experience is not the result of a central organiser, but rather the result of what the ‘citizens’ put in. The difference this makes to the overall energy of the place and people’s attitudes is difficult to describe. It becomes a real community. A crazy, unpredictable, helpful, friendly, open-handed and explosively creative community.
The values that drive AfrikaBurn (and other Burning Man events) are: communal effort, participation, civic responsibility, immediacy, decommodification, gifting, leaving no trace, radical inclusion, self-reliance and self-expression. You can read first hand what these mean here. I read that before I went, but it’s one thing to understand the ideas and quite another to find yourself in a money-free, barter-free community full of people expressing themselves in whatever way they choose and committed to doing so with no trace left on the environment!
As an experience I would recommend it to everyone, even the most cynical. It’s extraordinary to suddenly live in a community with very different ground rules and it is impossible not to be affected by it. For one, it proves first hand that how we relate to one another is infinitely fluid and how we exist, interact and transact in the ‘real world’ is only one option among many. Our communal reality is defined by common agreement around the rules of engagement and it’s easy to forget that. With a similar common purpose and common agreement, we could all choose a very different paradigm to live by. To experience that as a first hand insight, not an intellectual one, is no small gift.
If this all sounds glassy-eyed and ridiculous to you, bear with me. AfrikaBurn is not without its problems and politics, both internal and external. There is lively internal debate about improving and maintaining the values of AfrikaBurn, especially as it grows, and there is external criticism of AfrikaBurn itself and whether it has any significance at all.
The internal risks to AfrikaBurn’s community are that people start ‘attending’ rather than participating. That you get more spectators than citizens and with that, the experience begins to disintegrate into just another party. Happily, there is constant discussion about this and how to manage it. For example, when I left Tankwa Town, I was amazed at how little rubbish was left given that 7,000 people lived there for a week. However, old community members were outraged by the amount of ‘moop’ (the BurningMan term for rubbish – ‘matter out of place’) and public shaming quickly started on Facebook, with vibrant debate about how to improve it next year. Who knows, maybe Tankwa Town will eventually have a police force for those that flaunt it’s values? It already has a Department of Public Works, a Department of Motor Vehicles and Rangers made up mainly of volunteers. So why not? The point is that the community is strong and that it fights and adapts to maintain it’s values even as the event grows. In fact it’s amazing how much more community involvement and action happens within AfrikaBurn versus my local real community. If someone fly-tipped in my Joburg residential street, I can’t imagine a similar response – more a resigned sigh.
The external criticisms of Burning Man and specifically AfrikaBurn are as you would expect: That it’s basically a ‘thing rich white people do’. That it’s exclusionary because only a tiny slice of the population can afford to take a week off in the desert, with all the things they need for ‘radical self-reliance’ (water, food, shelter etc). That gifting and decomodification are all well and good, but all the stuff that makes that possible is provided by the ‘real world’s’ usual capitalist system (the clothes, food, lasers, paint, etc) and that rather than ‘leave no trace’ – AfrikaBurn just moves the traces elsewhere.
Many of these criticisms have some validity. It is terribly ironic that in order to live in a free, expressive, inclusionary, decommodified community for a week, you need to have generated a significant amount of wealth in a far less free, less inclusionary, heavily commodified system. However, does irony mean we should just give up trying to live (or at least experience) a different type of life? There is an unavoidable real world cost in making an event like AfrikaBurn happen and irony be damned. The event is non-profit and there is already progressive ticket pricing, making it cheaper for those with less means. These aspects are admirable, but more effort can and should be made to make AfrikaBurn even more inclusive. The founding of a ‘bursary fund’ where artists and eager participants could apply? Encouraging attendees to sponsor others to come? Educating the local Karoo communities about the event and inviting them to participate? There are many avenues available that haven’t been tried.
Trying to build a temporary utopia within modern reality can never be perfect (or free of irony), but imperfect is better than nothing. The value of expanding the reach of the AfrikaBurn experience to more people seems a no brainer: South Africa could surely only be improved by exposing more of its people to an expressive, inclusive and participatory community. Even if that exposure is brief, what opens up for each person is unpredictable, but almost certainly positive.
I am looking forward to next year already.
*All images © Andrew Kirkby